I recently interviewed Steve Dodd, a musician based out of Calgary who’s had a lot of success with TV and Film placements. As more and more artists want to get into this world, I thought it would be cool to get an insider’s perspective on how it works and how he got into the game. It’s lengthy but informative!! Classic tale of working hard and being in the right place at the right time…
What’s Your Story?
I’m 42. I spent the 90’s on the road playing guitar for rock and metal bands, with Saskatoon as home. I had a blast, but after some years went by, I began to notice that a lot of the musicians we would regularly run into on the road were broke and getting run down and looking older.
As my 20’s were ending it occured to me that I’d better think of ways to keep playing music as a career because the road might not provide the career fulfillment I want. I went to an audio college in Ohio ( happy wave to any Recording Workshop grads out there) and set out buying my own recording gear and recording every band I could find in every garage or basement in Saskatoon.
After ruining 30 or so albums for people, my girlfriend (now my wife) and I moved to Calgary in 2003, where I worked at a music store. One day, one of the guys in the music store tells me he’s got this TV audio gig that he’s sick of because it’s tiring him out. I tell him “I’ll take it.”
For a year I woke up at 3AM, got downtown to CityTV, mixed the morning show, drove to the music store (changing clothes in the car), worked 8 hours, drove back to CityTV to mix an evening entertainment show, home by 11PM. Repeat.
Eventually I got on with CTV and spent 5 years mixing tv audio. News, etc. Was it music? No. But at least I was doing something I went to school for. During this time, I had decided I wanted to be a composer. The easiest part of my years playing in bands was writing music. I was always one of the musical idea guys in my bands, and I never seemed to run out of them. I thought it would be cool to be the guy writing (and recording) the music of tv and film.
So I decided that instead of finding a band here in Calgary (I’d spent half my life in bands by this point – I was happy to take a break) I would start writing music that would make sense for film. I would make up challenges for myself: “synth heavy dance floor club – shaking music” one night, “sensitive string chamber quartet” the next, ” country hoe-down” another night… this was an exercise – that maybe nobody would ever hear – me just constantly working on something, playing and programming all the instruments.
Before I knew it I had a pretty good sounding demo, so I began knocking on production studio doors. Any multimedia company, post house, music studio… saying hi and drinking their coffee. I began supplying some production companies music for tv shows like A&E Biography, Inside Hollywood, Hollywood’s 10 Best, etc. etc. and writing music for clients at The Beach Advanced Audio here in Calgary.
Eventually a friend connected me to my publisher in L.A. who supplies music supervisors at MTV, Lifetime, HBO, etc. Jersey Shore, Keeping Up With The Kardashians, Married to Jonas, Catfish, Punk’d, Mob Wives, Ridiculousness, The Theo Fleury Story and Supernanny are among the shows using my music.
How did you get your first licensing gig?
I did a friend a favour – He needed a song demo’d for inclusion in a film. The same publisher asked him for more, and he introduced us. This publisher would ask me for 2 of something; I’d give him 5. If he mentioned something in passing “… if you ever want to write some electronic pop…” and boom I’d have 3 for him 2 days later. I kept over – delivering until he came to rely on me a bit for certain pieces and shows. I got to meet him face to face for dinner and a very insightful discussion when I went to Los Angeles a while back.
What are music supervisors/creative directors looking for?
Generally they are looking for a few key things – some of these are within your control and others are not. They generally want the piece of music to “get to the point” rather quickly – no 2 minute intros here or slow reveals – those are for your solo record! Keep harsh sounds to a minimum – icepick guitars or super-high screechy strings are always a bad idea.
Songs I submit end up sort of like this: Part (A) with basic rhythm section and main melody, Part (B) Complimentary part, similar instrumentation in a key relative to Part (A), A breakdown – maybe kick, shaker, bass, and keys playing main motif, then end the whole thing with Part A really big, adding more instrumentation.
Keep “soloing” to a minimum, unless it’s the song melody. And don’t fade it out!! Editors LOVE what we call a “button ending” that ends with a stop. Boom. Watch shows – editors cut to that all the time. This way, the composition gives video editors a nice choice of 4 different sounding music parts for 4 different scenes, but none of them venturing too far from each other. The trick to writing this is the mindset of “If they dig Part A, let’s not kill the mood by straying too far with Part B”, etc.
Notice that what I submit isn’t really a fully-realized traditional song? No bridge, no solos, no long intros.
Music supervisors generally prefer to deal with the publishing house… and can you blame them? I wouldn’t want to deal with the artist either, because this is about an end result, not the art. When a publisher has lunch with a music supervisor, They will bring a hard drive with hundreds of music pieces on it to give to the supervisor. If the supervisor uses this music, the publisher-and I- make money. This is called “back end”.
Rarely does anyone pay me up front for music – if it gets used on a show, 9 months later it’s on my SOCAN statement on payday. If you consider that the average reality show uses 70 + music cues per show, it would be impossible to meet with the artist for each of these. Supervisors have to get all their music from 2 or 3 publishers in order to meet show deadlines.
Does location matter to getting a deal in the digital world?
Years ago I would have answered that it doesn’t matter where you live, but I actually think that it does. Or at least that it very much CAN. I think that in music (in my experiences anyway) your path to success is not linear; if you work very hard PLUS you ran into that guy you did a great job for PLUS you impressed a production company in town etc. etc.
All of these things can seem like a combination of your knowledge and work ethic, but also some random coincidence opportunities that very much would or wouldn’t happen because of where you live. Let’s put it this way: it’s better to live where there is something going on than somewhere nothing’s happening. This alone CAN increase your opportunities.
To me, nothing replaces face-to-face. The internet is a great tool – I transfer files daily – but making a good impression is a forgotten skill I think. When I went down to L.A. to meet my publisher, I know that buying some drinks and talking about the business left a better impression on him than an email ever would.
How has the music licensing world changed in the last 5 years?
I think the main way licensing has changed in the last 5 years is the amount of cues being used in shows. It’s pretty much doubled or tripled. In today’s economy, reality shows are common because they’re cheap. They don’t have to pay Friends stars millions per episode, they don’t really need a traditional “script”… all they need is a small shooting crew, and some editors, and a ton of music that tells the audience how they’re supposed to feel. They can’t afford to license popular songs (and they don’t need to) so I’d say that it’s prime time right now for licensing music, more than ever.
What advice would you give aspiring musicians wanting to make a go of music licensing?
Make sure everything you write is registered with SOCAN (*this is in Canada, ASCAP and BMI in the U.S, other countries will have their own). Embrace your strengths, and showcase them. Watch the shows you aspire to have your music on, taking note of everything from instrumentation and style to chord progressions to how quick the songs reveal their “hook”, etc. and emulate those a little bit. Keep in mind I’m talking about writing instrumental music for tv.
If your aim is to get placements with your vocal songs, there are two ways to see things: If these songs are your artistic pride and joy that weren’t written to make tv money but were written as your personal art, consider getting a membership at TAXI – a huge agency that sends out publishing opportunities daily – from record labels to tv placements to tv commercials, etc. for all types of music.
If you’re writing vocal songs for placement on shows, know that it is very rare – but possible – for an unknown vocal song to be featured on a show, but you should still do what we all do – a demo, LinkedIn, a webpage, a TAXI membership, check out great blogs like this one, knock on all doors, and be willing to wake up before and go to bed after everyone else.
Follow Steve on LinkedIN